Our friends at the American Lands Council have been working to promote the transfer of public lands from the federal government back to the states. Western communities are suffering as a result of this arrangement, as we have seen most recently from the Sequester’s impact. Yesterday, Nevada became the 5th state to explore transfer of public lands when Gov. Sandoval signed AB227 into law. Read the press release below for more details.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
June 4, 2013
Carson City, Nevada — On June 4, 2013, Governor Brian Sandoval signed into law AB227 Nevada Land Management Task Force, making Nevada the fifth western state to actively explore the transfer of public lands to western states. The federal government still controls more than 50% of all lands in the West. It controls less than five percent of the lands in Hawaii and all states east of Colorado. Governor Sandoval commented, “This is a great bill. I’m really happy to sign it.”
Nevada Assemblyman John Ellison was the primary sponsor of AB227. Senator Pete Goicoechea carried the bill in the Senate. Ellison commented, “Governor Sandoval and our state legislature have taken the first step in fulfilling our responsibility to our children and for the future of our state in making Congress honor the same promise to Nevada that it made and kept with Hawaii and all states east of Colorado.” Elko County Commissioner Demar Dahl remarked of the bill signing, “we now have a workable framework to assess the merits of a transfer of our public lands to the state.”
The terms of Nevada’s statehood contract (known as an enabling act) for the transfer of the public lands are the same terms found in the enabling acts of Nebraska and most other states east of Colorado. While their enabling acts are only one month apart, Nevada was actually made a state three years before Nebraska. The federal government disposed of nearly all the public lands in Nebraska (from more than 25% down to only 1%). Yet, during the same time, Congress has still failed to dispose of more than 81% of Nevada’s lands, according to the congressional research service.
This movement for the transfer of western public lands began in Utah in 2012. Utah State Representative Ken Ivory passed, and Governor Gary Herbert signed, HB148 – Transfer of Public Lands Act. Ivory, who represents not a rural district, but part of suburban Salt Lake, said he introduced the bill out of concern for the financial self-reliance of his state. Utah, like Nevada and most other western states, depends on federal funds for more than 40% of total state revenues – the single largest revenue line item for most states. On March 19, 2013, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, remarked, “The federal government is broke here. We can’t continue to pay counties to not utilize the lands within their boundaries.” Ivory commented, “responsibly accessing the more than $150 trillion in natural resources locked up in federally controlled public lands really is the only solution big enough to fund education; protect access; better care for our lands; create jobs; and grow local, state, and national economies.”
Even though the proposals for the transfer of the public lands do not include a transfer to the states of national parks or other lands with protected status, some say that states can’t manage — or can’t afford to manage — the public lands if they were turned over to the states. Utah governor, Gary Herbert, in testimony to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Natural Resources in May of 2013, addressed these concerns stating, “We know how to manage … and certainly would be a good example for Washington. That being said, the resources that come off the public lands are about $450 million a year. The expense being put into the resources in Utah is about $219 million a year. So, with the additional $225 million we would certainly have the money to do it. I would argue that we are closer to the land. We have certainly the same motivation and interest of protecting it as part of our tourism and travel business. We would just spend the money more efficiently, more effectively, and get a better bang for the buck. We certainly can do it. We would have the resources to do it if, in fact, those lands were returned to Utah for management.”
Providing better, local care for the public lands and securing a reliable funding source for education motivated Idaho Speaker of the House Scott Bedke to actively back Idaho’s transfer of public lands legislation that also passed this year. Speaker Bedke remarked, “In Idaho, the difference between the lands we manage as a state and federal public lands is remarkable. In the aftermath of one particularly difficult fire season, fires didn’t ravage our healthy, state-managed forests. We also confirmed what we have known for a while, which was that on federally-managed lands, no-harvest policies fueled fires, resulting is losses of tens of thousands of acres. In Idaho, we well understand that actively-managed state lands, in partnership with our grazing, timber and agriculture communities, can sustain the environment and our public schools for the long term.”
From the beginning of our nation, states gave up title over their public lands to the federal government only to serve as a trustee for the purpose of creating new states and using the proceeds of any lands it may sell to pay the national debt from the Revolutionary War. The federal government honored this duty until it got to the West. Arid western lands were harder to sell. However, this never meant the federal government should just keep them.
In 1976, Congress enacted a “policy” (Federal Lands Policy Management Act, or FLPMA) declaring that it would simply retain these lands in federal ownership. However, in 2009 a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court declared that Congress does not have the authority to unilaterally change the “uniquely sovereign character” of a statehood contract, or enabling act, particularly “where virtually all of a state’s public lands are at stake.”
A recent, independent legal analysis commissioned by the Federalist Society found that while Congress has the right and duty to manage the public lands pending disposal, it remains duty-bound to dispose of the western public lands just like it already did with Hawaii and all states east of Colorado. In fact, at one point, the lands of states like Illinois, Missouri and many of their surrounding states were as much as 90% federally controlled. They knew their rights, banded together, and simply refused to be silent or take “NO” from Congress for an answer concerning the duty of Congress to transfer title of their public lands. They succeeded in compelling Congress to honor their statehood contracts and today have, on average, less than five percent public lands.
The statehood promise of the federal government to dispose of the public lands is the same for all states east and west of Colorado. States have already mobilized in the past and compelled Congress to honor their statehood promises to transfer title to their public lands. This is the only solution big enough to better care for our lands, fund education, and grow local, state and national economies.
Learn more about this movement by visiting the FAQ page at www.AmericanLandsCouncil.org.